Causes of Eye Color Change in the Elderly

By Michael Brent

For most people, eye color will remain consistent throughout a lifetime, since the color of one’s eyes matures in infancy and generally stays the same color. In a small percentage of people, however, various factors can cause eye color to change in old age, while ailments such as glaucoma can also alter the eyes’ appearance.

Changes in Eye Color

The color of our eyes is determined by the amount and color of pigment granules, called melanin. These granules vary in color from a neutral tone to very dark brown, with darker eyes caused by darker melanin or a greater degree of melanin, and vice-versa. The color of the iris is caused by pigment in the stroma (the connective tissue of the front layer of the iris), and this color can lighten if the amount of pigment granules in the stroma decreases, or if the granules produce lighter pigment. Unlike skin and hair, eyes don’t synthesize color pigment all the time, but retain the accumulated pigment in the stroma. If the pigment degrades over time, this can result in a lightening of eye color.

Disease

One typical factor that can cause a person's eyes to change color is disease. In fact, a change in eye color could be a symptom of an eye disease, so any noticeable color changes should be examined by a doctor. Some of the most common diseases that can lead to a change in eye color are Horner's Syndrome, pigmentary glaucoma and Fuch's heterochromic iridocyclitis, which generally occur most often in the elderly.

Genetics

Genetics has much to do with whether or not your eyes will change color as you age, and 10 to and 15 percent of Caucasians will experience change in eye color (races with darker eyes generally experience little change as they get older). This occurs because the amount of melanin in the iris will decrease over time, causing the color of the iris to alter. This is the same principle that causes hair to change color as we age, and the rate and age at which is this occurs can vary due to genetic determination.

Yellowing

Another change that can happen to eyes as we age is the appearance of yellowing, a fairly common occurrence among the elderly. This occurs because the chemical composition of the eye’s variable lens can change over the course of time as proteins are produced in different proportions than they used to be. These chemical changes can cause the lens to take on a yellow appearance, reducing the lens’ transparency and causing it to become somewhat opaque.

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